Three Attempts at Making Sense of WikiLeaks' Erratic Behavior

Following the leaking of the entirety of the group's U.S. cables, the story keeps changing

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It's very difficult to figure out what exactly the folks at WikiLeaks are thinking right now. The organization has responded strangely to news that an encrypted file containing over 250,000 leaked U.S. diplomatic cables--including the names of protected sources--has been available online for months. After a series of confusing denials, WikiLeaks blamed The Guardian for revealing the password to the leaked database and asked their Twitter followers if they should just go ahead and publish all of the cables anyways--including the names of protected sources. The supporters voted 100 to 1 in favor of publishing the documents, and despite vocal protest from news organizations and the State Department, WikiLeaks is getting ready to releasing everything.

The organization's collective response to the rogue document doesn't make a ton of sense, but we've come up with three competing interpretations.

1. WikiLeaks is trying to escape the blame of having leaked their most valuable information. It's not entirely clear how the encrypted database originally leaked online. Der Spiegel, a former WikiLeaks media partner, traces its existence back to when former WikiLeaks spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg fled the organization to help found WikiLeaks rival OpenLeaks. According to their retelling, WikiLeaks looks like they really screwed up:

At the end of 2010, Domscheit-Berg finally returned to WikiLeaks a collection of various files that he had taken with him, including the encrypted cables. Shortly afterwards, WikiLeaks supporters released a copy of this data collection onto the Internet as a kind of public archive of the documents that WikiLeaks had previously published. The supporters clearly did not realize, however, that the data contained the original cables, as the file was not only encrypted but concealed in a hidden subdirectory.

Then, in the spring of 2011, Assange's external contact made public the password that he had received from Assange without realizing that this would allow access to the unredacted US cables. The slip-up remained undetected for several months.

WikiLeaks would have a hard time wiggling out of the accusation that they posted the document; by Spiegel's account, they did. So they're pointing their finger at the guy they say revealed the password: Guardian investigations editor David Leigh. According to WikiLeaks, Leigh published the password in his February 2011 book on WikiLeaks. The Guardian has denied that the details in the book could have actually helped people find the document. "It contained a password, but no details of the location of the files, and we were told it was a temporary password which would expire and be deleted in a matter of hours," the paper said in a statement. WikiLeaks later disputed the part about the temporary password, saying that the it could not be changed with the type of encryption process they used. Regardless of what really happened with the password, WikiLeaks is having some luck steering attention towards the The Guardian, and they're working hard on making them the villain here. "This is The Guardian's hacking scandal," they tweeted on Thursday.

2. WikiLeaks is falling apart. Even without considering the leaked document and password, WikiLeaks has been acting strangely. Last week's release of almost 134,000 diplomatic cables was six times larger than all of their previously published cables. In those earlier releases, Assange and company worked closely with partners like The New York Times and The Guardian, partly in order to ensure that the sources named within the leaks would remain anonymous. However, as The Times pointed out Monday, even those releases contained the names of protected sources. With the entirety of the cables now public, WikiLeaks looks anything but organized, explains Christian Stöcker at Der Spiegel:

The "Cablegate" cables are now completely public. For many people in totalitarian states this could prove life-threatening. For Wikileaks, OpenLeaks, Julian Assange, Daniel Domscheit-Berg and many others, it is nothing short of a catastrophe.

A chain of careless mistakes, coincidences, indiscretions and confusion now means that no potential whistleblower would feel comfortable turning to a leaking platform right now. They appear to be out of control.

And given what Stöcker says about the life-threatening consequences for sources, whistleblowers will definitely think twice about giving information to WikiLeaks.

3. Julian Assange is dying for attention. This one seems obvious. Assange has now been on house arrest for nearly a year, while WikiLeaks was sitting on this mountain of secrets. WikiLeaks denied the document's existence at first, then denied that the document had been decrypted, then announced that they were changing their model to let more people look at their leaks and finally, they tweeted out what appears to be a link to the encrypted file. Assange and WikiLeaks have been stoking the fires of debate and leaving bloggers (like us) wondering what the heck he's thinking. Thousands of stories about WikiLeaks' latest drama are now floating around the web, and it's hard to imagine the group isn't enjoying being in the spotlight again. They've been tweeting more and slinging playground insults at their former partners. In a 1,600-word editorial, WikiLeaks says that they've "commenced pre-litigation action against The Guardian," who's "subsequently and repeatedly violated WikiLeaks security conditions." Meanwhile, protecting their sources in the leaked documents seems to be the last thing they care about.

Clarification: An earlier version of this post said that WikiLeaks is suing The Guardian, when in fact, the organization only claims to have started the process. As the paper's investigations editor David Leigh points out, precedent shows that past threats from WikiLeaks to The Guardian have proved to be empty threats.

"[Assange] repeatedly claims to be suing The Guardian, but he never does," David Leigh told The Atlantic Wire in an email. "He claimed to be suing us for "loss of earnings" last year. Then he claimed to be suing us for libel over our book. Now he claims to be suing us over his own loss of control of his files.

"I can assure you that no legal action of any kind is in existence between Assange and The Guardian--nor, on past experience, is there ever likely to be."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.